By "education is a discipline," we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body.
In a recent conversation with Bill and Maryellen St. Cyr, who are the co-founders of Ambleside Schools International, Bill stated that it was equally as easy for a child to put his clothes in the hamper after changing as it was for him to drop them on the floor. As a mom of three, I was intrigued! He went on to state that in such situations the determining factor is the child’s habit. Children with the habit of putting put. Children with the habit of dropping drop. Now, I can certainly instruct one of my children to pick his clothes up placing them in the hamper, and I can ensure that it is done. But what happens when I’m not there to see it through? What is my child’s true habit? And in this scenario, how much do I want to bless my son’s future spouse?
Any reflection on our own experience makes it clear that habits are powerful. Currently, there is great interest in the nature of habits and how they shape our lives. The Power of Habit has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 64 consecutive weeks. In her writings, Charlotte Mason used the phrase, “a habit is ten natures.” Imagine your nature and the power of your “natural impulses” – then multiply by ten. Such is the strength of a well-developed habit. She uses the metaphor of a locomotive and the rails upon which it runs. Once the rails are laid, the locomotive runs smoothly along the path set before it. A life ordered upon good, healthy “rails” is a life that runs powerfully and beautifully, without the effort of decision or the need for spontaneous (and potentially impulsive) choice.
So what are these good, healthy habits that are worth instilling in ourselves and in our children? In her book, Ourselves, Charlotte Mason speaks of the individual as a “great estate.” She elaborates on the idea that as a person we should govern ourselves as a kingdom would be governed, to allow for the highest and best way of living. Habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the body are essential to a well-run estate. Unfortunately, there is no quick “Top 10” list of habitual behaviors to develop that will leave us mature and prepared for what may come our way. Instead, it is a working out of principles that bring a full and beautiful life. At Ambleside, we spend much time focusing on these principles. Rather than developing persons who are able to study well for the specific exam, we are interested in helping students develop a life of study. We believe school is not just an institution to get through, rather a place to develop a love of learning. Order, imagination, thankfulness, and obedience – these are all principles that Charlotte Mason believed could be developed into habits.
Well, the million-dollar question is: how are habits developed? We all have habits we wish we didn't’ have and that seem impossible to break. And we all can point to habits we wish we had but cannot seem to master. Charlotte Mason suggests that habit development requires three tools: tact, watchfulness, and persistence. A new habit is rarely brought on by force. It takes thoughtfulness and consideration as the idea of the habit is introduced. The idea may be introduced either by a purposeful mentoring or by the frequent and casual sowing such that the desired idea “invests the child’s atmosphere”. After the idea is present, watchfulness becomes the key to making the new behavior “stick”. As a teacher or parent, we must be watching for lapses in behavior and for opportunities to continue to inspire toward this habit formation. Persistence plays right into this watchfulness. Once a new behavior or response has begun, we must watch for lapses and require persistent behavior until this habit becomes second nature. If we are not careful, we can quickly undo the work that has been done. In Philosophy of Education, Mason shares this practical example:
A boy is late who has been making evident efforts to be punctual; the teacher good-naturally foregoes rebuke or penalty, and the boy says to himself, ––"It doesn't matter," and begins to form the unpunctual habit. The mistake the teacher makes is to suppose that to be punctual is troublesome to the boy, so he will let him off; whereas the office of the habits of an ordered life is to make such life easy and spontaneous; the effort is confined to the first half dozen or score of occasions for doing the thing.
Maryellen St. Cyr noted that well-developed habits are gifts we can give our students; gifts they will keep with them for the rest of their life. These gifts will serve our students well, empowering a good and beautiful life. We have established that habits are powerful, and if they are well placed, they can set a person on course for better ways of living. If this is the case, why don’t more people make a concerted effort to develop the needed healthy, good habits as a way of life? It takes work. But, if we imagine the locomotive and its smooth sailing along the lines of good habit, we will soon decide that it’s worth it – for us and the ones we love.
Whether we are developing habits of study, or picking up the laundry, habits are a gift we give to those we love.